The Myth of the Persistent Vegetative State

by Sal on February 4, 2010

in Bioethics,Culture,Health Care,Right to Life

I’ve always been a skeptic of the concept of the medical “Persistent Vegetative State.”  A lot of my skeptesism came from my father’s battle with brain cancer, which he ultimately lost back in 2002.  About a month before he died, my dad suffered a seizure that left him unable to breath on his own.  The doctors in the ICU at the time attempted to convince us that he was in a “persistent vegetative state,” that he’d never recover, and that we should terminate life support.  And this was only 24 hours after his seizure!  My mom, sister, and I were not ready for that, and stubbornly refused to do what the doctors wanted us to do.  We were pressured into trying to make that decision, and it wasn’t one we were ready to make.

After another 24 hours, my dad opened his eyes.  The next day, he was off the ventilator.  Two days later, my dad was back in the rehabilitation center.  Because of his disease, he couldn’t talk with us, but he communicated with us through his eyes, through holding and squeezing our hands, and other non-verbal communications.  That last  month was special, and we felt it was a gift from God that he did rebound and give us one more month to be with him.

Since that day, I was skeptical of the concept of persistent vegetative state.  I did some research, and found that there is really no clinical, scientific basis for it, but rather it is based on symptoms and a doctor’s “best guess.”  Following the case of Haleigh Poutre, the young girl from here in Massachusetts, whom the state wanted to remove from life support because she was supposedly in a “persistent vegetative state.”  Poutre is now writing and feeding herself, and doing better by the day.

The medical science on this issue is ever-changing.  Medical science is now starting to come around and realize that some people previously thought to be in persistent vegetative states do show signs of consciousness, as reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Scientists were “surprised’ to find that some people who were thought to be in the vegetative state responded to external stimuli in a way that indicated some form of consciousness.  While not true for all patients, it indeed shows that the science on this is still uncertain, and new advances are being made every day.

While a decision to remove a suffering family member from life support is certainly morally justified, it should always be the choice of the family.  The decision should not be made by government officials, bureaucrats, or even doctors.  What we have to realize is that people in these minimally conscious states are people, not vegetables. Life is such  a precious gift and so fleeting that we as a culture need to recognize that some people want to hold onto that life, that hope, and that hope is sometimes vindicated.  Who knows, as we learn more and more about the human body and the brain, we may find ways to help people in these states to communicate or come out of them with treatment.  In the meantime however, it is important to realize that just because someone is in a coma or unconscious for a long period of time, that they are still human beings and worthy of dignity.

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